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Finlay’s Monday Recap: Sunderland stutter to opening day point

“What changes would you make for Sunderland’s first away trip of the League One season to Oxford United next Saturday?” asks RR’s junior reporter Finlay Anderson.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Sunderland began their 2020/2021 League One campaign with a 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon.

A third-minute penalty from Luke Leahy gave Rovers a lead that lasted for 79 minutes, until a Chris Maguire strike gave both teams a point.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One
Maguire’s goal rescued the point
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

The Team...

Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson named the same team that lost a penalty shootout to Hull City in the EFL Cup last Saturday, despite others staking a claim during the record-winning victory over Aston Villa’s under-21’s on Tuesday night.

Despite missing the only penalty last weekend, Will Grigg led the line for the Black Cats, alongside Aiden O’Brien and Chris Maguire. Josh Scowen, who performed impressively in midweek, only had a place on the bench, however; Max Power and George Dobson lining up in the centre of midfield.

First Half Action

Within the opening minutes Bristol Rovers were gifted with a spot kick, when Jayden Mitchell-Lawson was needlessly pulled to the ground by Lee Burge, after the goalkeeper fumbled Brandon Hanlan’s initial shot.

Rovers converted the penalty, Luke Leahy’s blast into the top right corner giving Burge no chance.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One
Burge, Burge, Burge.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

From there, neither team really created a clear-cut chance. Sunderland came the closest in the first 30 minutes when O’Brien fed Hume inside of the penalty area, The wing back tried to side-foot it into the top left corner, but the goalkeeper was able to tip the ball over the bar with ease.

Not long later, another full-back carved out an opportunity for the Black Cats, when Luke O’Nien found room around the penalty area, but he curled a bending shot just wide of the left post.

As the referee blew the half-time whistle with Sunderland one down, Phil Parkinson knew that work needed to be done if the Black Cats were going to get their season off to a winning start.

Second Half Action

Sunderland began the second half with more of an attacking intent than the visitors, and almost levelled the match when Maguire’s cross from the right was met by O’Brien, but his header didn’t have enough power to divert it into the top left corner.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Sunderland stepped the pressure up a notch and were so close to their leveller when O’Nien’s cross from the right wing picked out George Dobson in acres of space inside of the penalty area, but his header was flicked straight into the palms of the Bristol Rovers goalkeeper.

With 67 minutes on the clock, Parkinson made Sunderland’s first substitution when Grigg made way for Danny Graham, making his second league debut for the Black Cats.

The visitors almost doubled their advantage on the counter-attack when Jonah Ayunga arrowed the ball just over the bar from the left-hand side of the penalty area and, with just over ten minutes of normal time remaining, Parkinson made his last two changes.

Charlie Wyke and Lynden Gooch were brought on for Aiden O’Brien and Bailey Wright, with the Black Cats reverting to four at the back.

As the closing stages progressed, Sunderland were looking more threatening, and with eight minutes remaining, Chris Maguire equalised. Dobson’s close-range effort was blocked by a bundle of Bristol Rovers players, and the ball fell for Maguire who fired it past Jaakkola.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

A couple of moments later, Sunderland almost took the lead when Max Power’s shot from 30 yards out was tipped onto the crossbar and out for a corner.

Power probably made it two-one shortly after, when his shot from around five yards out was dramatically launched off the goal line by Little.

The home team’s chances of a winner were severely dented when George Dobson was send off in the sixth of eight minutes of injury time. The referee – Anthony Backhouse – issued a red card to the Sunderland midfielder, after his challenge on Mitchell-Lawson midway inside of the Bristol Rovers half.

Sunderland v Bristol Rovers - Sky Bet League One
Scowen finally should get his opportunity
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

Shortly after, the referee blew the full time whistle, with the match ending Sunderland AFC 1-1 Bristol Rovers.

Finlay’s Verdict....

Both Sunderland’s EFL Cup tie against Hull City and the 8-1 victory over Aston Villa’s under-21’s in the EFL Trophy were labelled as dress rehearsals for the start to the 2020/2021 League One season, but Saturday’s curtain-raiser to the new League One season didn’t quite live up to the expectations that were set.

With 45 matches to go of the League One season, Sunderland’s 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers was just the start to what will be a long season for the Black Cats. Although Phil Parkinson’s side didn’t get off to the best of starts, it’s only the first game of the season and we were still able to claim a point from a game in which we spent majority of the time behind.

An early goal wasn’t what Sunderland would have wanted, with Lee Burge giving away an unnecessary spot kick. From there, the visitors didn’t really have a sniff at an opening, as Sunderland bossed the game, but lacked the cutting edge. For Sunderland fans, it was half-chance after half-chance with it taking until the second half for some real action to happen in front of the Bristol Rovers goal.

In the second half, Sunderland were by far the better side, but the goal scoring touch was lacking, despite netting eight in midweek.

Maguire’s 82nd minute strike meant sure the hosts took a point; the least that they deserved after the intensity that was applied in stages of the second half. Some fans may argue that Dobson’s red card was harsh – it was clear for everyone to see by the reaction of the Rovers striker that he was practically asking the referee to give Dobson a red – but you can see why it was given, and despite post-game talk is unlikely to be overturned.

Next up, Sunderland make their first away trip of the season as they travel to Oxfordshire, in order to take on defeated play-off finalists, Oxford United.

I imagine Josh Scowen will come straight in for Dobson, and Parkinson may be tempted to make a couple of further changes in an attempt to land the first three points of the season.

Karl Robinson’s side got the season off to a poor start with an away defeat at Lincoln on Saturday afternoon, but no doubt they will be up for their first home game of the season, especially against a team that’s expected to be pushing for promotion come May.

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